Does a punch emoji imply intent? Experts say courts need to hire 'digital experts'

Does a punch emoji imply intent? Experts say courts need to hire 'digital experts'

Does a punch emoji imply intent? Experts say courts need to hire 'digital experts'

Updated 14 February 2018, 18:55 AEDT

Lawyers, judges and juries are increasingly having to decipher the meaning behind an emoji when deciding on a verdict, and they're often left baffled by the new visual language.

Lawyers, judges and juries are increasingly having to decipher the meaning behind an emoji when deciding on a verdict, and they are often left baffled by the new visual language.

Researchers at Deakin University in Melbourne have proposed to have experts in digital speech assigned to courts to help guide the legal fraternity through the modern thicket of emojis and their meanings.

Dr Elizabeth Kirley, a senior lecturer in law at Deakin University leading the research into emojis, said they would be like any other any other expert giving evidence on a subject the court needed assistance in.

"They would come with a certain informed view," she said.

"It would be an ongoing discipline because emoji's change, their meanings change very quickly and from one age group to another.

"So a teen or pre-teen who is using an emoji is really potentially conveying the same message, or not intending to convey the same message as I would for example."

Dr Kirley said the problem was deciding on whether an emoji conveyed, "sufficient intent".

"Which is what we're after here — is there intent to either make a contract or break the law, or to cause criminal harm?" she said.

She said a court should be able to determine the intent behind an emoji sent, with the right advice.

But she said currently cases were often dropped and charges withdrawn because judges did not feel they had the adequate expertise to make a correct call on what the accused person intended to convey.

Interpreting emojis has proven to be problematic — researchers at the University of Minnesota in 2016 found that 25 per cent of the time, people disagreed on the meaning of an emoji.

Dr Kirley said while the courts could summon psychologists, linguists, semiauto experts, machine-learning experts to inform judges and lawyers, getting a complete consensus was difficult.

"Often times we're doing cross-culturally messaging, so these images carry cultural messages as well," she said.

"But a lot of clarity is possible I believe, if we put our heads to it and collaborate on just what these symbols are saying."

How does an emoji end up in the courts as evidence?

Dr Kirley said an example of a case where the meaning of an emoji in communications tendered as evidence came under debate was the combination of a gun, a knife and a bomb.

"There was one case in Australia where there was no text but there were three emoji," she said.

"They were a fist, an ambulance and then a hospital. So the message seemed to be quite clear: this was a threat that someone was going to get beaten up and so severely they would need an ambulance to take them to a hospital to recover."

Dr Kirley said police and courts became involved when the recipient of a message considered it to be potentially threatening and illegal.

"So they will contact police or police will be following a particular person posting, and they will lay charges so it ends up in our courts — sometimes for people as young as 12 years old," she said.

She said police would arrest someone if they deemed they were using an emoji in a way that could be interpreted as breaking the law — so seen as threatening, harassing or defamatory.

"They end up in court and at some point a judge, perhaps members of the jury, have to look at these symbols and try to decipher exactly what they're doing in terms of communication," she said.

"[They have to decide] are they threatening in fact? Are they conveying the message that seems to be illegal?"